Sven took a step back, as if absorbing the blow, bright red patches highlighting his cheekbones. Despite the look in his eyes, his voice was calm as he repeated slowly, “You hated me because I didn’t die. Because I didn’t die and your mother did.” He paused, considering and then incredibly started to laugh. It rolled out of him, impossible to contain.
Lennon stared at his father incredulously. He said he wished his dad had died instead of his mother and he was laughing? He watched dumbstruck as tears rolled down his father’s face. Finally, the laughter ebbed and Sven strode behind the bar, took out two tumblers and opened a bottle of vodka. “Snow Queen. Misha will be pleased.” He poured them both double shots and Lennon slid it home in a single gulp. The Kazakhstani vodka burnt his emotion raw throat but it also felt bracing.
Sven downed his in a swallow and reached for the bottle again, pouring another healthy measure, sipping slowly this time.
The alcohol gave Lennon liquid courage. “Why were you laughing when I said I wished you had died and not mom?”
Sven put down the glass and reached for his son, one arm around his shoulder pulling him close. The warmth was beguiling. “Because I wished for the same thing. Every hour of every day. I wish it’d been me, not her. Never your mom. Never Sunny.” His voice broke with emotion.
Lennon felt the arms tighten around him. He resisted at first and then succumbed to a father’s embrace after so long. The closeness, the intimacy, the years of longing were washed away and Lennon felt the floodgates opened and he cried harder than he had since his mother’s funeral. For the lost years. For the lost comfort. For the bereft boy he’d been to the lonely man he’d become. His father said nothing, holding him tight against him stroking his hair until Lennon felt too confined by the strong emotion and pulled away. Not yanked, as he would have done just an hour earlier, but gently disengaged. He picked up his glass and almost choked on the liquor.
Sven sighed. “You did not inherit your mother’s head for vodka. She drank me under the table a couple of times. Fuck, what a day. I was worried coming back to St. Barts was going to be horrible because of memories of your mom. I had no idea there was so much current shit to wade through. I’m not complaining. It’s good to get this out in the open. Finally. Your mom never believed in letting strong emotions fester. In a strange way, that is part of the reason you’re here today.”
Lennon looked up, awaiting more information but his father shook his head ruefully. “That’s one memory of your mother I will not be sharing. What else?”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me what other reason you have to hate me other than not dying.”
Lennon felt the blush rising on his face but he wouldn’t lie. After so many years, it was wonderful to finally talk to his dad without any barriers. “The women. Everybody in Hollywood talks about you and all your women.” He gave his dad a look of defiance. Deal with that, his gaze challenged.
Sven ran his fingers through his blond hair in frustration. “Some of it is true. A lot of it. But all before I met your mom. Fuck, did you read Eden’s book?”
Lennon gave a slight nod.
“She was one crazy bitch. I had a passing thing with her before me and your mom got together. After your mom,” he shrugged, “no one interested me.”
“Misha did,” Lennon said, hating the sullen tone in his voice.
Sven barked a laugh. “God, there are no secrets in this family. Yes, we did have a…Jeeze, I don’t even know what to call it except we would comfort each other once in a while. More at first but not at all in the last few years. She’s my best friend and one of the best people I’ve ever met. You can’t talk shit about her.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Lennon shouted angrily. “It’s not her.”
“Right, it’s me. I’m bad. Lothario Larsen. God, I could kill the tabloid writer who came up with that one.” Sven ran another hand through his hair. “Listen son. I can’t make up for things I did before I met your mother. Even a few after I met her. But once we were married, I was all in. She owned me body and soul. Fuck, she still does.”
Lennon stared at his father. At the sight of the honest pain on his face, he felt his shoulders ease and the hurt breath in his chest ebb away after so many years.
Lennon shrugged. Might as well get it all over with. “You didn’t want me around. After. You were close to Bliss but not me.”
His father’s eyes clouded with memories. It wasn’t just his face. The fact that his son’s chin and eyes and nose and mouth were a mirror image of his late wife’s. It wasn’t just his personality. The fact that Lennon was Sunny incarnate—pure and sweet and good and even-tempered. It wasn’t just that he had the same facility with languages; the same way with people, putting them at ease; the same grace around a kitchen stove.
It was his very name. Lennon. Sven and Sunny had named their son after John Lennon. After the Beatle’s famous saying about life happening when you’re making other plans. At the time, it was witty. It was perfect. It was a reference to their unlikely courtship.
But after Sunny’s death, it wasn’t witty or perfect. It was a rebuke. A slap in the face. Lennon’s very name reminded Sven about the randomness of life and it hurt his soul when he had to speak it aloud. He admitted it was awful of him, selfish and short-sighted. Something Sunny would never have countenanced and yet…he couldn’t help himself. He found himself avoiding calling his son by name. Avoided looking in his own son’s face. Avoided him whenever possible. He was consumed by guilt, but the guilt was only superseded by his overwhelming, chronic grief over the loss of his wife. The loss of her love. The loss of the life they once shared.
“I know and I’m more sorry than I can say. The only explanation I have and it’s a pitiful one, is that you were so like your mother it hurt to look at you. You’d smile and I’d see her smile. You’d cry and I’d see her tears. I pulled away because it hurt too much.” He took a deep breath and reached out his hand, “I am so sorry about that. Hell, if there’s anything I should have learned in my life it’s not to waste time.”
Lennon grabbed his father’s hand and hugged him back. He was almost as tall, almost as strong, a revelation after decades of thinking of his father as a movie star, as a giant, as larger than life. Kid’s thoughts, he now realized. His father was a man. No more. No less. Part good. Part bad. Just a man.
He could hear his father’s voice, ragged with emotion, warm against his hair. “You can’t waste time either. You love Alex. I know you do. You have to make things right.”
Alex. Lennon felt sick at what he’d said, calling her spoilt goods, his sloppy seconds. He shook his head. “I’ll apologize but it won’t matter. You’re wrong. She doesn’t love me. I was just a fling. Her walk on the wild side. She would never let me in.” Lennon’s voice choked with tears.
“Son, whatever you may have heard or read I am not an expert on women. But believe me when I tell you, she loves you very much. She never would have come back to St. Barts otherwise. Not after what happened.”
“You mean helping deliver Bliss’ baby? It was a little scary and slimy but Alex didn’t seem freaked out at the time.”
“That’s not why she left nor why she was terrified to come back. Her stalker showed up and attacked her. I won’t tell you more but Alex will. That’s if you give her half a chance. If you still love her.”
Lennon all but reeled in shock. Alex had been attacked. His father somehow knew but hadn’t told him. On the outside. Again.
Lennon turned his face away. Did he still love Alex? It killed him to see her walk in with his father, their relationship appearing so intimate. It had killed him when she’d left without a word, vanished without a trace. When the photo surfaced of her and his father looking like lovers. It killed him when he went to bed alone each night, remembering her touch and taste. His father wondered if he still loved Alex? He would love her as long as he was breathing.
His father pulled back and wiped his red-rimmed eyes. His cellphone buzzed. He read the text at a glance. “Alex is with your grandmother. Best place for her.” He made a small smile, the same one Lennon remembered him using on his mom to get out of trouble. “God, I’m so jealous of you, of both of you. What’s the word that Charlie uses? Gobsmacked. I’m gobsmacked that you have your whole lives ahead of you. All that time to discover who you are separately and together.”
Lennon drank in his father’s advice. He wasn’t a child any more. He was a man. And he, more than anyone, should realize how important it was not to waste time. Lesson learned. “I love you dad.”
“I know, son. I’ve always known.”
Alex escaped into downtown Gustavia, anxious to put some space between herself and the Larsen family. She had slept poorly at Judith’s, Lennon’s hateful words haunting her dreams. In the morning, assured the coast was clear, she visited Bliss and Charlie, making much of baby Abigail. Getting the rundown on her Godmotherly duties while dodging questions about Lennon.
She wandered through the now familiar streets and shops, barely taking in lack of berths in the harbour or the display windows stocked with high-end merchandise in anticipation of the impending holiday season. The town was abuzz, more alive than she’d remembered but the energy made her tired and she was tempted out of the sun into a cool green oasis next to the church on the harbour. A white haired man was meticulously weeding a flowerbed filled with fragrant roses.
“I beg your pardon,” said Alex, uncertain if she was trespassing on hallowed ground.
“Don’t leave on my account,” said the man as he turned to greet her. “It’s nice to have company while doing tedious chores.”
“Are you the gardener? This is lovely,” Alex complimented.
“I’m the former pastor. James Nelson. I help out as needed. There’s going to be a wedding here tomorrow and I wanted everything to look nice. You’re Alex? Abigail’s Godmother.” He took off his gardening gloves and shook her hand. “I would have met you eventually. I’m performing the Baptism. A friend of the family.”
“Everybody seems to be,” said Alex taking a seat on a low stone bench, enjoying the verdant relief from the sun.
“The Larsens have deep roots on this island. Blame Sunny. She was the transplant medium for the family. That’s her,” he said pointing at a huge stained glass window showing a variety of seraphim. Alex could make out strawberry blonde curls streaming over wings and shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face.
“Sven?” she asked, certain her husband had ordered the angelic tribute.
“Another admirer,” grinned the cleric who rolled his shoulders with a moan. “Do you need me to walk you and Lennon through what’s expected during the ceremony? He’s been coming to Church for years but it could be new to you. Subtle, huh? How I was trying to figure out your religious affiliation.”
“Very impressive. I never would have guessed. I’ll need some pointers because I don’t belong to any church. I’m not even sure I believe in a god.” Alex waited for an angry retort. Her parents had regularly declared she was bound to burn in brimstone unless she recanted her heathen beliefs.
The older man didn’t seem the least bit upset. “What do you believe in?”
Alex paused for a moment. “Beauty. Love. Knowledge.”
The older man had a twinkle in his eyes when he answered, “Some would say those are gifts from God and proof of his existence. Just as ugliness, hate and ignorance are.” He waved away her objections. “You can’t have the good without the bad. I’m sure you’re finding that out, with your newfound fame.” He gave her a sly look.
“You know who I am!” Alex paused for a moment and read a touch of pity in the man’s expression. “You know about the attack. My stalker.”
“Judith’s my friend and she asked for my advice. I hope Sven’s visit helped.”
Alex felt her exasperation over Judith’s meddling fade. “It did help. A lot. I just wish that…”
“Yes,” he sighed and she heard his neck crack. “I’m not cut out for weeding any longer. I heard about what happened with Lennon. Small island,” he explained with the wave of a hand. “A member of the kitchen staff yakked and it was all anyone could talk about.” He sat down on the bench with a sigh, knees creaking. “It’s difficult to be the child of a celebrity. Sunny kept them all grounded but since she died, the whole family’s been adrift. I don’t blame Sven. He tries. But he’s swimming upstream trying to keep his family out of the public eye. Bliss is made of tougher stuff than her brother. She’s survived and is even flourishing now with Charlie and the baby. Lennon needs an anchor. He needs you.”
Alex started at his proclamation. “He doesn’t. He said I was spoilt goods. He’s not wrong.” There was something about the setting that made confessions incredibly easy. “I sometimes feel as though I won’t ever be clean again.”
“Child,” he took her hand gently, his voice echoing his tone, “you need Lennon too. Go to him. Explain. Give him the chance to be the man he’s meant to become. He’s so like his mother. Don’t mistake kindness for weakness. Lennon isn’t weak. He’s just scared.”
That startled her. “Of what? Scared of me?
Jim Nelson’s tone was calm and implacable. “Of loving and losing again, of course.”
“So”, she said, trying not to fidget with the brown woven belt on her too loose shorts or twist her ankles in her espadrilles. She knew she looked like shit. The mirror didn’t lie. There were dark circles beneath her eyes, lines bracketed her mouth and she had been able to count her ribs when she slipped on her green polo shirt.
“So,” Lennon answered and they stared at one another, neither willing to break the silence in the family villa.
Alex cleared her throat. “We’re both Godparents. I figured we should clear the air before the ceremony. It’d be nice if we could at least be civil to one another.”
“I’ll be civil,” he snapped.
“Yeah, I can tell. I don’t know what crawled up your ass,” she began but he interrupted her.
“Oh, you don’t. Let me tell you. You take off without a word. You don’t tell me about the stalker in advance. Then you take off without a word, only to share your big secret with my father. You were attacked. I had to find out from my dad. You never even told me. Thanks for your confidence in me.”
“I didn’t want to burden you! We barely knew one another.”
Lennon strode to her and grabbed her upper arms making her flinch. “I know you. I know you always put milk in your tea first. You always paint your big toe nail with a design. You do your best writing before dawn. You will cross the street to avoid stepping on an ant. You make these little noises in the back of your throat when you come. You taste like lemon lime pie, a perfect mix of sweet and sour. I also know that you don’t trust me.”
Alex felt her jaw drop open. He did know her. What he said was true, except for the lemon lime pie thing. Focus Alex.
Lennon continued, his green eyes bright with pain. “You went to my father for help. Not me. My father.”
“I didn’t go to him. He came to me. It was your grandmother’s idea. Blame your meddling family.”
“I blame you. For not needing me. You don’t. You think I’m this kid. Not an equal. Not someone who could help you. Protect you.”
“You’re acting like a child now. It doesn’t matter that I feel better, that I’m coping with everything. That I had the courage to get back on a fucking plane and come back to this fucking island. That means nothing. All that matters to you is that you couldn’t heal me. Boo Hoo! You big fucking baby. You wanted to play the hero in your fairy tale. Didn’t get the chance. Bet you cried when you found out there wasn’t a Santa Claus. Grow up Lennon! If you want me to need you, be someone worth needing. Stop acting like a child. Yes, I should have told you about the stalker but I didn’t run from you, I ran away from here. From the memories.”
She wrestled with her clothes, kicking off her shoes, ignoring his shocked expression as she wrenched up her T-shirt and stepped out of her shorts. “Wanna see what I was running from? The ligaments in my left ankle were torn. From the spreader bar. Page one-sixty eight in book three. You should read it again. Refresh your memory. He did. He memorized the thing. Every fucking syllable. In the book, the heroine didn’t get hurt. I did.”
She pointed at the white marks on her upper thighs. “Those are from the cane. Book one. Page two hundred and six, to be specific. Look it up. He did. He liked to use the cane. I can still hear it whistling through the air just before it hit. I’d flinch. I think that made it worse.”
His green eyes were wide. His breath coming in pants as she continued in a frenzy. Getting it all out. All the ugliness. He wanted her to share? She wasn’t going to hold anything back, not even details she’d kept from her therapist. Alex turned slightly to show him a scattering of dime-sized patches of pink healing skin at the top of her buttocks. “Book three again. Page three hundred and twenty. Souvenirs from the cat of nine tails. If you really know how to use it, you don’t leave scars. But I didn’t write that part well enough. It’s my fault. The scars are my fault. If only I’d written it better, there wouldn’t be scars.”
Alex felt the anger abate as quickly as it’d arrived, leaving her exhausted. She collapsed onto the floor, onto her knees sobbing, furious at her weakness. “It’s all my fault. Some scars you can’t see. They had to stitch me up, inside. But those aren’t the worst. The worst scars are the ones in my head and in my heart. I wasn’t sure they’d ever heal and then your dad came and he was so kind and he reminded me so much of you.” She felt Lennon drop to the floor next to her, scooping her up against his chest, muffling her voice and tears.
“Don’t you dare be gentle. Don’t you treat me like glass. Like I’m fragile. If you want me, if you still want me, take me. Hard, like you used to. Like I’m worthy. Like I’m still whole.” His arm was rigid against her back and she could hear his breath coming in ragged gulps. Please don’t pity me, she prayed. Not that. Anything but that. Alex almost laughed in relief as she felt her bra straps pulled down over the top of her arms baring her breasts and heard her panties rip.
How dare she call him a baby, thought Lennon. How dare she belittle his motives, his emotions. Just as he feared. They would never get past this inequality. Accusing him of not caring that she was recovering, focussing on the fact he hadn’t been the one to save her. How he wanted to slap that smug anger off her cheeks. Yank her by those soft brown curls. Make her hazel eyes really see him. He unclenched his fists, ready to leave, to try and put as much distance between himself and these overwhelming emotions when she asked, “Wanna see what I was running from?”
He couldn’t move. He did want to see, God help him. So he stood there, rooted as she showed him her damaged ankle, the echo of lashes on her thighs. The odd scattering of cat o’ nine tail remnants of pink healing flesh against the top of her buttocks. This was real. Evidence of what she’d gone through. Up until now, it’d been a spectre. A nasty story tale his father had hinted at. Insubstantial.
Now Lennon saw and he felt his selfish anger collapse into empathy. He wanted to caress away her pain, kiss those scars. But then she added the worst ones were internal. Not just needing stitches where the man had inserted an array of toys. But even deeper. The attack had scarred her heart. Her mind. Her soul.
Lennon fell to the floor trying to prevent his tears from welling up. Clutching her sobbing body to his chest. Don’t be gentle, she said. Don’t pity me, he heard. If you still want me, she said. And he did. He always would. He needed to get closer, to get inside her. To perform a kind of karmic transplant.
He shoved her bra straps aside and ripped off her panties, feeling her shudder in relief when the small wedge of fabric tore. Lennon pushed her down, pressing her back against the floor and feasted on her. His lips descended, his tongue invaded. He kissed her so hard he could taste a bit of blood, like a drizzle of truffle oil on scrambled eggs- tangy, earthy. He lowered his mouth to her breasts, sucking on first one, then the other as his hand undid his pants and tugged down his briefs. He didn’t have to touch her to know she was sopping wet. He could feel her against his thighs, smell her. That essential scent of Alex. The smell of home.
He plunged inside with a single thrust and rooted deep. Gave her a moment to adjust to his throbbing size. Her legs rose in a sudden jerk and fastened against his hips, edging higher to his waist. He slid one hand under her torso, the other beneath her neck. Kissing and sucking and fucking. He swallowed her rage and paid her back in a surge of life enhancing lust.
Rug burn. Shit. She hadn’t had rug burn in, well, never. Desk burn. Dashboard burn. But not rug burn. Who had cried out? Her? Him? Both of them? She willed her muscles to melt as the final shudders of orgasm washed through her. Hers? His? Both of them? Lennon didn’t move.
Alex remained impaled. Wondered if they’d be found in a few months sending out tendrils of fresh hybrid plants beneath the carpet. Focus Alex. She waited to see if he understood. If he knew she needed him. Not to protect her. She wasn’t that naïve. There was no really safe place, no real protection from harm anywhere in this world. She needed him to let her make mistakes, let the world do its worst and always be there to help her heal.
She let her fingers wander through his silky blond strands. Reached up to kiss the moon-shaped divots her fingernails had left in his upper arms. Met those invitingly cool green eyes without blinking.
When he spoke, his voice was husky with emotion. “You have to trust me. My dad and Liam used to take acting classes and one of their exercises was to fall straight backwards and let their partner catch them before they hit the floor. The idea was to trust your acting partner to protect you, allow you to be emotionally vulnerable. If you fall, I will always catch you. You have to believe me. And you can’t run away again. And you have to confide in me. We’ll do a deal. I will act like an adult, if you treat me like one.”
Alex smiled happily at his orders. “Pinky swear?”
“I can think of another way to seal the bargain,” Lennon said, bending his mouth to hers. She sighed as he stiffened and moved inside her again. Neither spoke for a while.
Alex awoke once in the night. A bad dream. Not one of the worst, but bad enough. She had barely begun to shiver when she felt Lennon’s arms tighten around her. His mouth on her skin. His hands seeking out secret places, whispering thoughts so erotic all the fear fled and she surrendered joyfully. For the first time in her life, she completely surrendered the cerebral to the physical. Letting him open her, move her, eat and stroke her. Trusting him fully as she fell, coming in long jagged spurts, fingers and hearts equally entwined.
“I still believe in Santa,” her whispered into her hair.
Alex licked a streak of sweat off his shoulder. “The glass will always be half full for you.”
“And for you. You know that that means,” he said, swinging her on top of him and gazing deep into her hazel eyes. “Somehow between the two of us, the glass will always be completely full.”
“Don’t wanna,” Alex moaned as Lennon levered her legs off of the bed.
“I worked you over pretty good last night. You need to heal before I can have you again.” He lifted her dead weight against his chest and whispered, “And I will have you again. And again.”
She felt him carry her nestled against her chest up the stairs of his bedroom to the bathroom. She smelt eucalyptus and it was invigorating. He propped her up before the sink and handed her a toothbrush, ready for use. She obediently brushed her teeth and used the floss and rinsed her mouth with the proffered glass of mouthwash. There, she thought, now I can go back to bed. So sated. So tired. But Lennon had different plans and plucked her off her feet and deposited her in a steamy bath of eucalyptus foam. She sputtered when he dunked her head, annoyed at his laughter, but hearted by his joy. She hadn’t see him look this happy in forever. It reminded her of when she’d watch him surfing. He was a water baby. Most at home in the sea or the tub. She sighed as he massaged shampoo into her sex sweaty hair, her head lounging against the lip of the egg shaped tub, the scent of the shampoo enveloping her. This was his shampoo. His soap that he carefully was caressing along her legs and between the tender worn flesh of her thighs. She felt as though she was inside of him. A memory surfaced. “In the movie, you talked about bath time, with your mom.”
He was kneading her skull as he kneaded dough, his fingers supple and strong, searching for knots of tension beneath the skin.
“Bliss and I had baths together until she was about five years old. Then she was too big, she said. Mom was mad, but decided rather than fight with Bliss, if you know my sister, you know it’s a losing cause, she decided bath time would be a special time for just the two of us. She bought me special toys and used to sing to me.”
“It sounds wonderful,” said Alex pushing against his fingers, enjoying the sensation as he cupped his hand and rinsed her hair.
“It was. Except for the singing. Mama loved music but couldn’t sing a note. Like strangling cats. I used to put my head under the water to drown out the sound. I think that’s when I learnt to hold my breath for so long.”
Alex laughed at the picture and then gasped as his fingers moved from her skull to her breasts, using the soapsuds as lubricant against her swollen nipples. Taking her moans as acquiescence, his hands slid lower. Soothing her sex swollen lips, gently opening her to the warm water and teasing her, testing her, holding her as she came again.
When she woke, he was gone. A note on the pillow explained he couldn’t spend all day in bed. He had things to do at the restaurant. There was orange juice and quiche in the frig. The coffee beans were ground, ready for her morning infusion of caffeine.
“See you at five,” he wrote and she hugged his words to her chest, smiling.
Something was wrong. He’d remembered the security code to the villa by the beach from Before. He wandered through the rooms, fragments of reality intruding as he tried to reconcile past with present. The pool was important, he knew that. The villa through the path into the gardens too. And the cabana. Something had happened in the cabana. He knew that from Before. He also remembered the restaurant at the top of the hill. He remembered the sign Anse du Gouverneur. But the people were wrong. Not as he remembered. Not like Before. The woman wasn’t right. At first he was certain it was her. The hair was right. Those strawberry blond curls. He’d wanted to wrap the long, near waist length tresses around her throat and tighten until the light went out of her face. He would have except she’d turned and he’d seen her eyes. Turquoise. The wrong eyes. The set of her jaw and shape of her mouth were wrong as well. And she had a baby. She hauled it everywhere. A mewling encumbrance.
He searched his memories. There was no baby in Before. She was wrong.
The man was also wrong. At first he thought, at last. My love. But there was something different about his stance, his build. His hands were different. He’d watched his love’s hands for decades. Imagining them fondling his cock, sliding sly fingers into his ass. This man’s hands were not the same. The voice was different too. He’d crouched for days beneath the restaurant, spying. This voice had a different timber and not the same familiar accent. This voice was foreign. When he finally got a good look at the man’s face, his heart contracted. The hair was the same. The cheekbones and jaw the same. But the nose and eyes, and the colouring was slightly off, as if he were a copy of the original. Not as brilliant or as compelling.
He cried when he realized he’d come all this way for nothing. And then he heard them talking. The woman with the familiar hair and the man with the familiar jaw mentioned his love’s name and he knew. The blood and the dead man in the bathroom and the passport and the stealing and the secrets and the hiding and the planning and the years, the decades, the waiting had not been in vain. Soon, he thought. My love, soon.